Quest for justice and peace in an uncertain world
Mr Tong Zeng, a former teacher and innovator, devotes his life to seeking justice for hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Korean and other South East Asian women and men, who were victims of Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945.
On a Saturday, in August, while in Beijing, l was at a tennis match where one calm postured player was hitting the ball like a pro against professional player and coach Maria G.
This “amateur” tennis player Mr Tong Zeng did not miss a ball for nearly forty minutes! Concentration, steadiness, and an innate ability to rise to the challenge are often cited as qualities needed to become a good tennis player or any sportsperson for that matter. This also applies to this compassionate leader of a dedicated cause.
Tong Zeng, the Diaoyu Islands activist from mainland China. 14 April 2004 (Photo by Ricky Chung/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
During my meetings and discussions with Mr Tong, I realised what an extraordinary personality he is. Mr Tong Zeng, a former teacher and innovator, devotes his life to seeking justice for hundreds of thousands of Chinese, Korean and other South East Asian women and men, who were victims of the Japanese occupation from 1937 to 1945.
December 1937: Five Chinese prisoners of war are buried alive by their Japanese captors just outside Nanking after the fall of the Chinese capital. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
Historians note that the contribution of China, whose war was the longest and among the bloodiest, tends to be forgotten in the West. Imperial Japan’s treatment of women in the occupied countries such as China, Korea and the Philippines is well documented. Nearly half a million women were taken as “comfort women” from these countries to serve in “comfort stations” for the Japanese army in the countries they occupied.
SHANGHAI, CHINA - MARCH 17: (CHINA OUT) Residents live in a house once called Home of the Sea, and used as a "comfort station" for the Japanese navy during WWII in Hongkou district on March 17, 2005 in Shanghai, China. The two-story 1920s building had been earmarked for demolition as part of an urban transformation project in 2016. The site will make way for a school expansion and a road. While the demolition of a former Japanese army military brothel used during World War II in Shanghai has been put on hold, according to the local government on Tuesday. This building, which opened in 1939, once housed 40 "comfort women" in its 17 rooms - 10 were from Japan, 10 from Korea and 20 from China. (Photo by Visual China Group via Getty Images/Visual China Group via Getty Images)
While Europe and the US keep the politics of remembrance alive and glowing, the sacrifice and suffering of the people in Asia during the Second World War seldom get attention. On 1 September this year, Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier asked for Poland’s forgiveness 80 years after the start of World War II. On the other hand, Japan has neither asked for forgiveness nor has been willing to pay compensation to the civilian victims of war.
Queue of Chinese warriors, central sector of China's Salween front 1943. Photograph shows Chinese soldiers marching along a narrow section of the Burma Road toward the fighting lines on the Salween front. (Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Even in India the battle of Kohima and Imphal, a battle won against the Japanese army by the Indian soldiers in the British army, is hardly remembered. Even though the Indian troops fought for colonial Britain, the victory against Japan and Japan’s defeat in Burma was mainly due to their valour and sacrifice.
In China and Korea, the wounds left by the Japanese occupation are yet to heal. Asking for forgiveness by Japan is long overdue. Groups and organisations such as the one led by Mr Tong will not rest until a just outcome is achieved.
Tong Zeng reads out a petition letter in front of the Japanese Embassy in Beijing demanding to free the seven mainland activists. 12 April 2004 (Photo by David Fang/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)
Mr Tong, a dedicated soul in China, has been fearlessly and continuously fighting to get an open apology from the Japanese Government, and financial compensation from Japanese companies. His journey seeking compensation for the atrocities committed by the Japanese military and corporations started almost 30 years ago and is still going strong today through his non-governmental organisation in China. He is also a company lawyer by profession solving legal issues for companies in China. This has helped fund his NGO’s work.
A Chinese girl who recently discovered her husband's body in their burned out home, sifting through the ashes for personal possessions. (Photo by Jack Wilkes/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)
Mr Tong has received more than 10,000 letters so far from civilian war victims and former victims of forced labour with cries for help. They seem to bestow infinite trust in Mr Tong. I was told that there have even been cases of victims walking hundreds of kilometres from other cities to find Mr Tong Zeng in Beijing to ask for help in their pursuit of justice. Mr Tong proposed in 1990 that Chinese victims should seek redressal from Japan at the private level. His idea won strong support and he set up an NGO/association to help the Chinese victims seeking compensation. In 1992, more than 100 delegates to the National People's Congress called on the Chinese Government to back his call for reparations. South China Morning Post in an article called him “a wanted man”. Elderly men and women were seeking him out to get his help to press the Japanese Government for compensation and a formal apology.
It is also worth noting that the affected people seek Mr Tong Zeng’s help and guidance instead of any other instance.
An early newspaper article about Chinese victims
Japan has paid around $1 billion to war victims of all nations, while Germany has paid $72 billion to Jews, Poles, and other victims of the Holocaust by the mid-1990s, and continues to make further payments thereafter.
Some of the thousands of letters that Mr Tong has received
It was moving to see the piles of letters that Mr Tong has received, letters crying for help and detailing the brutalities of war. Imperial Japan was very cruel in its treatment, not only of civilians in fallen cities like Nanjing and Singapore but also of prisoners of war. Japan has acknowledged the fact that forced labour was resorted to during World War II. Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi, had also forced thousands of people into hard work in mines, on construction sites, and in shipbuilding yards. More than 20 of these companies are still in operation today. Former labourers have filed compensation claims in Japan since 1995 and so far, only six companies have given compensations.
Mr Tong, left, with a 94-year-old victim of World War II
In a peace-oriented post-war world, thousands of such victims and their surviving relatives should be entitled to compensation. However, it has not been easily forthcoming from the Japanese side. Mr Tong and his supporters and the victims of war and their relatives keep the flame of hope still burning. Mr Tong’s work is not just about looking at what happened in terms of history and seeking redressal; Japan’s gestures like that of post-war Germany will be important for the people of China as well in the context of lasting peace and prosperity for decades to come. The ongoing trade dispute between Japan and South Korea has arisen from a ruling by South Korea’s supreme court last year, that ruled in favour of paying damages by Japanese companies for forced labour during the Second World War. Japan seemingly does not accept this ruling.
Messenger of Peace
While Mr Tong Zeng has been fighting for an apology from the Japanese government, and for compensation, his main aim is to foster peace and friendship between the peoples of Japan and China. According to him, this cannot happen unless there is some sort of closure by way of an unconditional apology from Japan, and compensation to civilian victims that are still alive as well as the families of the victims who are no longer with us. He also hopes that his work can be instrumental in setting up a global instrument for redressal and compensation for people affected by all types of wars and conflicts.
He has been spreading the message of peace for almost 30 years. From the beginning up to now, he has done so for one purpose alone: to restore justice to the victims of war, and to make a lasting contribution to peace in the world.
Over the years, Mr Tong has experienced disappointments as well as encouragement, but he has never considered giving up, even if he has never derived any personal benefit from the project.
As an unfaltering and focused person, Mr Tong also has great entrepreneurial acumen. He was running a multimillion-dollar hotel and was planning to start oil refineries. He gave up these initiatives to solely focus on securing justice to the war victims. His singularity of purpose also led to hurdles in his private life, in addition to losing his job. However, Mr Tong is a man with a noble mission, and the road to fulfilling his mission is lined with many uncertainties and obstacles.
His selfless “mission for peace” has been recognised and strongly supported by many in the government as well as by many organisations and lawyers in Japan.
Japanese lawyers have helped fight the cases for compensation in the Japanese courts. Some of the Japanese corporations have given compensations to a few victims of war. While many have died, the surviving ones are in their 90s. Their numbers are dwindling, and their families also support Mr Tong’s work. I met a few of them who have not given up hope in getting compensation from Japan. Despite the lack of support from the official circles or organisations promoting peace and justice for war victims elsewhere, Mr Tong does not seem to express pessimism or disappointment. His calmness and optimism are also a source of hope and comfort for the victims, many of whom have been able to present their cases for compensation in Japanese courts.
In 2019, Mr Tong Zeng has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for the 5th time. Nominating individuals from five different countries have given their votes in his support.
Maria G., Mr Tong’s tennis partner, has been volunteering for Mr Tong Zeng’s NGO for a few years. She is writing a book about his life, although there are a few books about him already. Whether he receives the peace prize or not, worldwide recognition of his work can motivate peace organisations and the international community to set up systems and instruments that can bring justice to civilians affected by wars and conflicts.